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The Swing oil painting by Fragonard.

A brief history of happiness

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by Chris Woodford. Last updated: December 10, 2017.

A carefree girl, her radiance caught in the spotlight of the sun, rocks back and forth on a swing to the delighted amusement of her young companion, happiness shining on both their faces. Forced to pick a single work of art that captures a moment of bliss, could we do better than settle on Jean-Honoré Fragonard's 1777 masterpiece, The Swing [1]? Is this, in short, the perfect picture of happiness?

Note to readers: This article is a companion to our piece on the science of happiness.

Photo: The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. You can see a bigger version of this picture at Wikimedia Commons. You can see the original at the Wallace Collection in London, England.

Happy hazards

True pictures of happiness are painted not on canvas, of course, but in the mind. Consider a more elaborate representation of happy feelings: Beethoven's "Pastoral" sixth symphony, composed in the rural retreat of Heiligenstadt some 30 years after Fragonard painted The Swing. Thanks to Hollywood, history remembers Mozart as the cheery, ebullient one; Beethoven, by contrast, broods in the corners—dark, intense, frenzied, and irascible. People may not have made Beethoven happy, yet the composer famously loved nature—"I love a tree more than a man"—and the Sixth Symphony is a 40-minute, musical elaboration of that thought. Unique among Beethoven symphonies, the sweeping Sixth has five movements whose evocative titles ("Awakening of Happy Feelings on Arriving in the Country", "Scene by the Brook", "Merry Gathering of the Country Folk"...) charm and cheer and leave no doubt about the composer's happy intent.

Yet look more closely and neither of these works of art presents an unequivocal picture of bliss. The pastoral pleasures are cut rudely short in the fourth movement of Beethoven's Sixth, "Storm and tempest". While the conductor's baton flashes musical bolts of lightning overhead, the "Country Folk" find themselves suddenly sodden, hauling their picnic basket under the trees for cover. Thick black clouds are also gathering in the top left corner of Fragonard's painting, massing and merging with the darkness of the park. The air is heavy and charged. The twisted trees, whose ancient brittle branches, supporting the swing, could snap at any moment, threaten a jolt of a quite different kind. The painting's full title, Les hazards heureux de l'escarpolette (The happy hazards of the swing), says it all. The message is clear: happiness is fleeting and fragile. The French word heureux also translates as "fortunate", so there's a suggestion too that happiness is a matter of luck or accident.

But what kind of happiness is this anyway? In an age when Internet pornography is tediously inescapable, this frilly-frocked picture seems tame—even bland—and it's hard to image that it tested the limits of eroticism when Fragonard painted it. But it was quite literally "rococo" in the Rococo: "debased... lighter, freer... frivolous... florid and tasteless... grotesque." [2] And it provoked outrage when it was commissioned by a nobleman who sought to capture the "beauty" of his mistress. Her clothes are painted flesh pink because, in the enlightened times of the Enlightenment, Fragonard would have been lynched for painting the woman nude. But he goes as far as he dares nevertheless: the woman kicks off her shoe and reveals her stockinged foot; and whether her lover is gazing at her curving ankle or staring directly up her dress, the effect is erotically the same. There's another scandalous touch too: lurking in the darkness, who pushes the woman towards her sinful lover... but a priest—and a bishop, no less.

Beethoven portrait.

Photo: Ludwig van Beethoven. Picture by courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Beethoven's country folk survive the storm (the Sixth Symphony's final movement, "Shepherds song: happy, thankful feelings after the storm" rejoices as the sun returns with light and life). But Fragonard's protagonists are not so lucky: their fate is to be frozen in a stolen moment of pleasure for all eternity. Beneath the swing, Cupid and Psyche shrink in fright as they wait for the bough—a wooden sword of Damocles—to come crashing down.

There is no perfect happiness in art because there is no perfect happiness in life. Happiness, as both Fragonard and Beethoven depict it in these two very different works, can be understood and appreciated only as part of life's broader narrative. Our lives are "happy hazards" too, swinging between triumph and adversity, dodging thunderstorms and basking, sometimes, if we're lucky, in a sunny afternoon of pastoral pleasure. But in art as in life, light illuminates darkness and darkness gives meaning to light. King Lear is generally considered to be Shakespeare's greatest play precisely because it is a work of such unremitting despair. Proust recognizes this too: "Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind." [3] Virtually all the Beethoven symphonies can be heard as emotional journeys from darkness into light; other great musical works wrestle Sturm und Drang in the same way. Schubert's last three piano sonatas, written in the creatively fruitful, final year of his life, paradoxically gain their emotional force not from their pacey allegro passages but from their slow movements, variously described as bleak, wistful, melancholy... even longing for death—and emerge at least content with themselves: in these sonatas, Schubert looks death in the face and accepts it. If one were to say Schubert emerges "happily" from these sonatas, what does that say for our concept of happiness? That it is an act worthy of the high-wire, at least.

Ancient wisdom and the art of philosophy

Historically, the task of understanding what happiness is and how it animates our lives has fallen not on artists and musicians but on thinkers; indeed, this is one definition of philosophy. Many had loved wisdom before the ancient Greeks gave the subject its name (Gr. philo, friend; sophia, wisdom), but it was the Greeks who truly harnessed reason in pursuit of truth and understanding. At a time when millions rely on tabloid-column commentary as a substitute for wisdom of their own, the idea that a whole class of people might spend their lives reasoning their way through to the principles of a meaningful life seems archaic and arcane—even self-indulgent. Yet what could be more relevant, in either ancient times or modern, than for anyone to have a proper understanding of what makes life worth living? The Greeks, we like to think, had philosophy down to an art.

And so they did. It was the Greeks who first began to tease out the meaning of happiness from such concepts as maximizing pleasure, eliminating suffering, and striving for virtue. They also recognized that happiness was absolutely an ethical issue: a happy life was not necessarily the same as a good life, though the best lives were both happy and good. Not that there was absolute agreement on what constituted happiness or even on what the word meant. Naturally the Greeks did not use the English word "happiness" (derived from the Old Norse word "hap", meaning chance, which gives us accident-prone words like haphazard and happenstance); their word was eudaimonia (literally, "guided by a guardian angel") and it referred to a life that was, by common agreement, well-led.

Etymology (a word whose own origin lies buried in etymos, the Greek word for "truth") helps to shed light on changing patterns of thought—on how different people have conceived happiness in different ways—and substituting "eudaimonia" for happiness, as some modern writers do, helpfully changes the question "what is happiness?" into "how can people lead good lives?" For Democritus (c.460-c.370 BC), the inventor of the atom, a man who, at the age of 109, reputedly extended his life three extra days by sniffing freshly baked bread, the good life was one of enlightened pleasure—not debauchery, as we might suppose, but sailing high above the clouds of life to achieve a calm, composure of mind. Happiness came from independence, integrity, and thinking ahead. His contemporary, Socrates (c.470-399 BC), trained his mind with the discipline of an athlete and advocated a kind of gardening of the soul in which people should use knowledge to gather virtues much like gardeners might acquire prize specimens of azalea.

"Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul." [4]


Today, people read "self-help" books and go on "personal development" courses; there was a similar focus on self-understanding and self-improvement in much of Greek philosophy, but there was also an integrity, an asceticism, a seriousness about life that few people outside a monastery would recognize these days. Diogenes of Sinope (412/403-324-321 BC), a pupil of Socrates, was far from the only advocate of austerity. As a founding father of Cynicism, Diogenes lead the prototypically cynical (literally, "dog-like") existence: self-sufficient, free-spirited, and painfully honest. Renouncing luxury and ambition, he ate meager food and briefly lived in a tub. When Alexander (later Alexander the Great) stood over him one day and said: "Ask me for any gift you like", Diogenes simply replied "Get out of my light". In sharp contrast to the cynical Diogenes, Aristippus of Cyrene (5th-century BC), taught that people can appreciate only internal, subjective experiences of pleasure or pain (pathe) and not those outside their own bodies. For the Cyrenaics, that led to a quite different kind of independence from the kind advocated by Cynicism: happily for Aristippus, happiness lay in accumulating short-term, bodily pleasures in each present moment. Aristippus, in short, was a hedonist. Shockingly so, by some accounts. When his infant son was dying, Aristippus was quick to abandon him: "Phlegm and vermin are also of our own begetting, but we still cast them as far away from us as possible because they are useless."

"What is best is not abstaining from pleasures, but instead controlling them without being controlled" [5]


The two most influential ancient Greek philosophers, Plato (c.428-347BC) and his pupil Aristotle (384-322BC), also viewed happiness (eudaimonia) as a supremely serious project. Of all the ancients, Aristotle remains the philosopher of happiness par excellence, the ancient thinker most likely to be quoted in modern-day discussions of happiness. Plato's greatest work, The Republic, defines happiness as "virtuous activity", [6] so a happy life is a happy consequence of a good life, and a good life is one that has sought virtue with one eye on a kind of ideal, abstract perfection that Plato termed the Form of the Good. For both Plato and Aristotle, acquiring virtue ("aretē") and avoiding vice were central to happiness: Plato recognized the four virtues wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, though later thinkers added others to the list too. Plato famously argued that a good man can never be harmed in life or after death. For Aristotle, nothing was worth doing unless it contributed to a life of total fulfillment, which in his view meant using our unique human capacities to full effect combining theoretical wisdom with practical, common-sense, life experience. For both thinkers, the path to happiness involved living an ethical life based on acquiring virtues, but Plato and Aristotle also recognized that people are individuals whose talents are uniquely suited to different occupations, so there was no single, prescriptive recipe. Aristotle's books Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics remain highly influential in the philosophical study of happiness, though modern thinkers tend to reject a simplistic dichotomy along the lines of "virtue good, vice bad". By sketching the prototype of an ideal, utopian society ruled by "philosopher kings", Plato's Republic showed what happiness might mean collectively, as well as individually, and how society might achieve it. Aristotle also extrapolated his theory of wellbeing in individuals to show how people could live happily together in real-world states and societies.

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.

Photo: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: Still one of the definitive books on happiness.

"Wellbeing is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself." [7]

Zeno of Citium

"If virtue promises good fortune and tranquillity and happiness, certainly also the progress toward virtue is progress toward each of these things." [9]


The need to rise above the difficulties of everyday life is a strand that runs through most ancient philosophies of happiness—none more so than Stoicism, the system founded by Zeno of Citium (335-263 BC). Like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle before them, the Stoics believed the path to happiness lay in perfecting the soul through the acquisition of virtues, but they carried that idea to an extreme conclusion and insisted everything else was irrelevant. Stoicism was idealism, but it was rooted in realism: it taught that there were things you could control and things outside your power and it was senseless to waste time on the later; with absolute self-control and a clear focus on the good, the truly wise person would harbor no attachment to passions or possessions and would be untroubled by their loss.

Nothing illustrates stoicism better than a (possibly apocryphal) story about how Epictetus (AD c.50-c.120), one of the best known of the stoics, became lame while still a slave. His master was torturing him by twisting his leg. A superbly composed Epictetus told him to stop, but the master ignored his advice and continued. When, finally, the leg broke, Epictetus calmly said: "There, I told you so." In modern times, stoicism has come to mean "indifference to pleasure or pain: limitation of wants: austere impassivity" [8], a kind of bland neutrality that sounds similar to (and about as much fun as) a permanent prescription of Valium. But for Epictetus, Stoicism meant striving to be an excellent human by acquiring virtue, focusing only on those things within one's own power, and accepting what life brings.

Stoicism with a more fallible, human face also reappears in the letters of Seneca the Younger (c.4BC-AD65), teacher and adviser of the emperor Nero and a Stoic who demonstrated the very real difficulty in trying to live up to the original Stoic ideals. Although his sober, erudite writings contrast sharply with a life of high-powered greed and power politics, his "suicide" (having his wrists slit by a servant on Nero's orders while, according to some accounts, Nero watched) was the ultimate, stoic gesture. Seneca offered a basic philosophy of fortitude and contentment many would aspire to today. Stoicism remains an influential philosophy: Günter Grass's novel Local Anaesthetic, for example, is a comic exploration of whether Seneca's stoical ideas can help us weather the storms of modern living.

"What difference does it make, after all, what your position in life is if you dislike it yourself?... Only the wise man is content with what is his; all foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself"[10]


Indifference to pain is one thing, indifference to pleasure quite another. For Epicure (c.341-270 BC), who gave us our word "epicurean", philosophy was nothing but the art of happiness and maximizing pleasure was the whole point of life: Epicureanism was, in many ways, the antithesis of Stoicism. In their own time and still today, the Epicureans were misrepresented as adherents of a life of overindulgence—gluttony, debauchery, and as many other varieties of decadence as they could pack in between. The drawbacks of such a life are obvious: happiness and contentment are not synonymous with reckless pleasure-seeking. Yet what the Epicureans advocated, in reality, was a life of simple pleasures—such things as reading and enjoying the company of good friends, happily removed from the strains of worldly upheaval.

Many ancient ideas on happiness and the good life are combined in the philosophy of Neoplatonism, the last great philosophical and educational movement of the Graeco-Roman era, which was founded by Plotinus (AD204/5-270). As its name suggests, Neoplatonism was rooted in the work of Plato, but it also incorporated ideas from Aristotle and the Stoics and from various mystical religions of the time. According to Neoplatonists, the greatest possible bliss came from unification with the "One" (also known as the "Good"), essentially the God-like creator of everything, but that union was considered no more than a temporary state that anyone could aspire to but most would experience rarely, if ever. Intriguingly, Plotinus claimed to have experienced supreme bliss only seven times in his life.

Christianity, humanity, and enlightenment

It was Augustine (AD354-430) who helped to build Christianity on the foundations of Neoplatonism, shaping the concept of human happiness for many centuries. In much ancient philosophy, the purpose of life was to cultivate the innermost soul in pursuit of virtue and develop the good spirit of eudaimonia. But for the Neoplatonists and Augustine, and the Christian thinkers whom they influenced, the supreme good was not internal and evanescent but external and eternal: God, the "One", and the "Good", was to be the foundation-stone of their lives. Augustine is famous for using Christianity to cast off the debasement and dissipation of an early life immersed in sensual pleasures to attain the virtues he cherished so deeply: his Confessions is a chronicle of his lifelong journey toward a state of grace.

"I wish now to review in memory my past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of my soul—not because I still love them, but that I may love thee, O my God."

St Augustine [11]

One of his notable achievements was the rejection of Pelagianism. Pelagius, a Christian monk, had noted Augustine's idea that people could never be perfect or quite attain salvation and seen how disempowering it was to ordinary believers; in marked contract to Augustine, he had argued that humans are more independent and more capable of perfecting their own souls (with less help from God's grace, thank you very much). For Augustine, that was dangerous nonsense and blatant heresy and he soon succeeded in having Pelagius excommunicated and consigned to history. After that, it was easy for Augustine's view of a downtrodden, imperfect, suffering humanity to triumph. It took only a hop, a skip, and a jump of the mind for the early Christians to convince one another that the lot of humans on Earth was not to avoid suffering to gain happiness on Earth, as the ancient Greeks and Romans had suggested, but actively to suffer in the hope that the love of God would unlock the door to eternal bliss in heaven—paradise would have to be postponed. With the rise of Christianity, ethical questions ceased to be the province of philosophers: the no-small matter of how to live and be happy—and very much else besides—boiled down to interpreting the word of God—or "casuistry". Augustine saw no contradiction between free will and divine providence, so the problem of happiness remained a human one, even for Christians. What was possible, by way of a good life on Earth, depended largely on how one viewed providence—specifically, how much direct control one believed God had over people's lives. As Christianity rose triumphant, the ancient teachings were systematically destroyed. In AD 529, Emperor Justinian shut down the Neoplatonic Academy in Athens, the last of the great academies to be closed because their teachings were considered "pagan". Classical culture was barbarously destroyed—books were burned, libraries were destroyed—and western Europe was plunged into the "dark ages".

During the Renaissance, the rise of what would later be called "humanism" brought a renewed interest in liberal, classical education and the greater personal responsibility for well-being and human achievement familiar to the Greeks. Notable philosophers of the time included Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), whose views were strongly influenced by both the Stoics and the Epicureans: happiness, for Montaigne, meant luxuriating in the company of books and friends. Like Montaigne, Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) saw virtue in knowledge. Spinoza spent his early years as a glass-lens polisher—an occupation that cut short his life, at the tragically early age of 45, when all the glass dust he had inhaled finally killed him; in those days, philosophers had to reach conclusions about their lives rather more quickly. According to Spinoza, the great project of a human life was to perfect the human soul by one-ness with God through rational thought and scientific enquiry. That task was made easier by Spinoza's conception of God, not as something external, remote, and inscrutable, but as a more modern, pantheistic conception or "one-ness" he identified running right through people and the world that surrounded them: God was something humans could embrace through intellectual love to perfect their own souls and achieve supreme joy.

"Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee."

Michel De Montaigne

These themes—human self-reliance, the influence of science, the power-shift from blind faith to experience and reasoning—reached a new peak during the Enlightenment. Some philosophers of the period devoted much of their energy to reconciling the traditions of religion with the emerging rational, scientific worldview. A prototypical polymath, Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) made important contributions to literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science—helping to invent calculus and constructing one of the first mechanical calculating machines were just two of his more notable achievements. Always optimistic, Leibniz viewed this as the "best of all possible worlds", necessarily because God created it. The idea was lampooned by Voltaire's Candide, in which a series of increasingly improbable misfortunes befall the eponymous hero until, inspired by the good and simple life of a farmer, he finally settles down to a life of similar fulfillment.

Other Enlightenment philosophers were more obviously anti-religious than Leibniz. Like Spinoza, the English historian David Hume (1711-1776) was also a skeptical, naturalistic philosopher but he went much further in challenging the religious orthodoxy: man could stand by his own achievements. Hume, who was fond of claret and good conversation, argued that, "in all nations and ages", people's actions have been guided toward broadly similar ends (love, friendship, ambition, and so on) by their same, broadly unchanging human nature. Understanding human nature is therefore the starting point for understanding concepts like virtue, happiness, or morality. That idea was fully developed by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the philosopher most closely identified with the spirit of the Enlightenment. Kant finally kicked away the religious crutch and showed that, through the exercise of "pure reason", humans could be in absolute control of their own destinies—and their own happiness.

Optimists and pessimists, utilitarians and outsiders

John Locke portrait.

Photo: John Locke. Picture by courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Sympathetic ideas were revolutionizing politics at the same time. Apart from the work on epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) for which he is best known, John Locke (1632-1704) developed rebellious political ideas rejecting the divine right of kings, outlining alternate forms of more liberal government, and supporting the rights of the oppressed to rebel against their rulers in certain circumstances. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) took that idea much further. His much-quoted declaration that "man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains" was not just a milestone in modern, democratic politics; we can also see it as further evidence that enlightened individuals were taking greater personal responsibility both for their own happiness and well-being and that of society as a whole.

"Good and evil, reward and punishment, are the only motives to a rational creature: these are the spur and reins whereby all mankind are set on work, and guided."


"Everything is good when it leaves the Creator's hands; everything degenerates in the hands of man."

Rousseau [12]

"The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."

Bentham [15]

The obvious conflict between pursuing the well-being of individuals and the collective well-being of society was a key theme for the Utilitarians. Like many of the ancients, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) thought individuals could achieve happiness through a simple recipe of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. But for society as a whole, there obviously had to be some compromise. The goal therefore became "utility"—seeking the greatest overall happiness for the greatest number of people—and that became the guiding principle of Bentham's thoughts on philosophy and politics. These days, Bentham is probably best known as an embalmed dummy (a grisly waxwork of his head, replacing the mummified original that "went off", standing on a straw body, designed to encourage a suitable "attitude of thought") that is frequently stolen by students at University College London and once even wound up in a left-luggage locker at Aberdeen railway station. John Stewart Mill (1806-1873), another English Utilitarian, also saw happiness as the ultimate goal of human endeavor but, unlike Bentham, plumped for quality not quantity by distinguishing between higher pleasures (appreciated through education and experience) and lower pleasures (gained through the more obvious and more immediate fulfillment of desires). Despite being an influential Utilitarian, the Cambridge educator and philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), found himself unable to prove that "happiness for all" was always a better goal than "happiness for one". Some biographies characterize Sidgwick as a stammerer who "always succeeded in finishing his sentences". [14] Best remembered as a distinguished philosopher, he was also—more colorfully—a founding father of the Society for Psychical Research and spent much of his time checking ghost stories.

Utilitarians like Bentham were profoundly optimistic, but they were also pragmatic and realistic at the same time. Yet not everyone was persuaded that happiness was within easy reach, even for some of the people some of the time. Two great 19th-century German outsiders, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), argued that humans could realize their full potential only through exhausting battles against their nature and history. Schopenhauer's essentially grumpy view of life—he once reputedly pushed a maid downstairs for disturbing him—was profoundly influenced by Kant and has people locked into lives of suffering and desire, wrestling with a life-force he called "the will" that can be either positive or negative, occasionally escaping their wild and base natures through art, music, or acts of charity. Schopenhauer in his turn influenced Nietzsche, though Nietzsche's ideas proved to be a complete departure from anything that had gone before. For Nietzsche, no idea was sacred—least of all sacred ideas: "God is dead", he spat in his book The Anti-Christ. After systematically demolishing everything from the ancient theories of Socrates to modern notions of democracy, what was left was not nihilistic futility but carte-blanche to create a vital new philosophy based on a whole new set of positive values: thus was born Nietszche's influential concept of the Superman or Übermensch.

"Plato was a bore."

"In heaven all the interesting people are missing."

"A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything."

Nietzsche [16]

Nietzsche's ideas have been criticized for influencing the Nazi concept of the Aryan master-race—a misappropriation, in the service of mediocrity, that modern philosophers consider he would have despised. But Nietzschean ideas also laid the foundations of Existentialism, profoundly influencing German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) and his French counterpart Jean-Paul Sarte (1905-1980). Existentialism makes humans absolutely responsible for their own existence and everything that follows on from it. For Existentialists, embracing God-lessness means wrestling with dark concepts like absurdity and nothingness; Existentialists were cynically portrayed as black-wearing, Gauloise-smoking intellectuals who went round saying things like "Why kill time when you can kill yourself?" But far from being cold and God-less, nihilistic and depressing, Existentialism is a positive and humanistic philosophy [17] that grants humans absolute freedom and supreme responsibility for finding meaning, authenticity, and happiness in their lives. For Existentialists who "get it", life is truly what they make it.

Utopians and dystopians

Most philosophers have been optimistic about life, for the most part. While few would agree with Leibniz that this is necessarily the best of all possible worlds, most have at least admitted the possibility of greater personal happiness and well-being, usually following a certain amount of hard work and what would now be called "self-realization" (Plato once wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living [18]). For many philosophers, the happiness of individuals is inextricably linked with the well-being of the communities to which they belong); ethics and politics are intimately related. For some, the goal of philosophy is not just to point the way to a happy personal life but to pave the road to utopia.

Nearly two thousand years before Thomas More coined the word "utopia" in 1516, Plato had mapped out his plan for an ideal society in Republic in some detail. Published c.360 BC, Republic focuses largely on how people will be educated and ruled in an ideally just society and comes to the conclusion that the best elements of rulers (not always noted for their wisdom) and philosophers (hardly men of action, at the best of times) should be fused to form an ideal, supremely wise ruler known as the philosopher-king. According to Plato, the elite ruling class must live austere lives, with no possessions or property of their own, focused solely on the task of government, and dedicated to justice and other virtues. The drawback? Plato's "ideal" Republic was essentially a totalitarian state powered by slaves (a literal reality for the Romans, some years later, with their human-powered treadmills) in which women and children were held in common, because marriage was not permitted, and people were pigeonholed into position in society according to their virtues and abilities. It's hard to see much happiness in such a rigidly austere utopia. Plato's ideas were elaborated by Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC), whose De Republica also sketched an ideal society founded on the core virtues of justice and reason. Critically influenced by Plato and Cicero, Augustine sketched his own concept of an ideal society in The City of God in which happiness would revolve around the love of God, not the love of man.

More's Utopia owed an obvious debt to these earlier works, though the society he outlined was far less austere than the one Plato had had in mind; in Utopia, happiness comes from equality and a shared sense of fate:

"...where every man has a right to everything, they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full, no private man can want anything; for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties." [19].

Part satire, part vision, More's Utopia became a model for many utopian visions in the centuries that followed, most sketched out not by philosophers but by fiction writers. Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), James Harrington's Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), and H.G. Wells A Modern Utopia (1905) are some of the better-known utopian novels. Through the emerging form of science fiction, Wells helped pioneer what became an entire—largely utopian—genre.

"...he looked upon us as sort of Animals to whose Share, by what Accident he could not conjecture, some small Pittance of Reason had fallen, whereof we made no other Use than by its Assistance to aggravate our natural Corruptions, and to acquire new ones which Nature had not given us: That we disarmed ourselves of the few Abilities she had bestowed, had been very successful in multiplying our original Wants, and seemed to spend our whole Lives in vain Endeavours to supply them by our own Inventions."

Swift, Gulliver's Travels [20]

For some, sketching out a vision of a new future was pointless if that ideal could not be realized in practice; utopia was more social experiment than fictional divertissement. After writing Voyage en Icarie (1842), his own account of a socialist utopia, French lawyer Étienne Cabet (1788-1856) traveled to the New World with around 1500 of his countrymen to establish their own model community. Swindled out of land, plagued with malaria, and disillusioned by Cabet's dictatorial behavior (their leader even had to return to France at one point to defend himself against charges that he had fraudulently puffed up his project), these prototype citizens found utopian ideals rather wanting. Even so, Cabet and his supporters kept the project going for nearly 50 years.

France was fertile territory for the seeds of utopian thought. Other French thinkers dedicated themselves to finding alternative utopian models. In something of a throwback to Plato's philosopher-kings, Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825), the father of sociology, proposed that society should be ruled by eminent mathematicians and scientists. But in marked contrast, another visionary French thinker, Charles Fourier (1772-1837), argued that science had led to the industrialization and dehumanization of society; Fourier, by contrast, championed variety and joy in work and play and sexual liberation in all its forms. Some of the predictions he made stretched the limits of credibility: in his ideal world, lasting 80,000 years, he predicted the oceans would turn from salt to lemonade, the world would be populated by 37 million poets the equal of Homer, 37 million mathematicians as sharp as Newton, and 37 million playwrights as talented as Molière ("approximate estimates"). Such optimism did little to dent his popularity and may even have enhanced it; followers of Fourier established around 30 cooperative, "New Harmony" colonies in the United States during the mid-19th century.

At their most extreme, utopian ideals were revolutionary: noisily, for the Soviets who used Marx and Engels as the inspiration for their communist state; or more quietly, in the case of anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph "property is theft" Proudhon (1809-1865), who advocated the abolition of the state altogether and greatly influenced his Russian counterpart Pëtr Alekseevich Kropotkin (1842-1921). Inspired by studies of animals and insects, Kropotkin rejected the notion of "social Darwinism" (the simplistic idea that "survival of the fittest" extends beyond genetics to society as a whole) in favour of an alternative idea, "mutual aid", in which the formation of small, cooperative societies based on "mutual aid" was the only path to social harmony [22].

Far from rejecting industrial society entirely, some utopians proved there was real progress to be made by evolutionary change. The English textile manufacturer Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a model of philanthropic capitalism who paid great attention to the working conditions, wages, and education of his staff in the community he created at New Lanark in Scotland. Other notable 19th-century English industrialists who followed a similar path, often inspired by Quaker ideals, included Joseph Rowntree (1836-1925) in York, William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) in Liverpool, and George Cadbury (1839-1922) in Birmingham. At a time when many people were trapped in drudge work in rapidly industrializing cities and towns, these were truly enlightened attempts to put the long-term well-being of individuals and their families above the short-term profit of the factory owners themselves.

But the idea of utopia was shaken to its foundations in the 20th century. In sharp contrast to the spirit of "mutual aid", millions of lives were obliterated in two world wars that industrialized the process of mass-murder: the Aryan "utopia" of the Third Reich apparently required shoveling humans wholesale into gas ovens, while Allied forces, for their part, developed nuclear weapons that offered a very different—and mercifully theoretical—kind of utopia: mutually assured destruction. There were fictional attacks too in works such as Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and Orwell's 1984 (1949). At the end of the century, the great communist experiment finally crumbled as the Berlin Wall tumbled to the ground. "Mutual aid" was hardly anywhere to be seen: multinational corporations bragged of the economic benefits of globalization while millions continued to die of hunger and disease, out of sight of all but a few TV journalists and out of mind completely. And as the millennium turned, New York's twin towers—a mighty symbol of capitalist power and achievement—tumbled to the ground in dust and chaos—and the terrified world, scrambling for cover one minute, swearing revenge the next, seemed further from the calm unity of utopia than ever.

"If your sciences dictated by wisdom have served only to perpetuate poverty and strife, give us rather sciences dictated by folly, provided that they quiet furies and relieve the miseries of peoples."

Fourier [21]

The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center seemed to confirm the pluralistic views of Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), one of the most articulate 20th-century critics of one-size-fits-all utopianism. In a famous 1953 essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox", Berlin used a line of Greek poetry from Archilocus ("The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing") to contrast those who believe in unified and often simplistic, utopian ideals with others (like himself) who saw an irreducible plurality and complexity in human ideas. If there are, necessarily, clashes between different sets of human values, there is no way to resolve the conflict —at least not in a single utopia [23]. Peaceful coexistence, even happiness, comes from liberalism and tolerance not from a titanic clash of incompatible values.

The philosophy of art

Philosophers have no monopoly on wisdom. Fragonard's picture of the young woman on a swing captures the ambivalence of happiness far more succinctly than many works of philosophy. Other artists also have helpful things to say about the history of happiness: the history of art through the ages reflects (indeed illustrates) the history of philosophy. In medieval times, when philosophy was dominated by religious dogma, artists such as Giotto, Duccio, Fra Angelico, and Piero della Francesca offered unquestioning, pious art. The Renaissance art of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci admitted the greater possibility of human perfection, though still as part of the overall divine creation; the Sistine Chapel's Creation of Adam puts God and man on an equal level.

By the 18th-century, Gainsborough's art was celebrating the worldly, the secular, and the vain—Mr and Mrs Andrews enjoying the riches of their stately life are no more than the Posh Spice and David Beckham of their day—and Constable's landscapes were finding the same pleasure in the pastoral as Beethoven. Hogarth found happiness in humble scenes while Blake, at the turn of the 19th century, looked toward the spiritual and the mystical. For the early-20th-century impressionists and post-impressionists, happiness is a succession of perfect moments that seep in through the senses; for David Hockey, decades later, it is the perfect splash of water as a body dives into a Californian swimming pool [24].

Like Fragonard, poets have been inclined to find happiness a bittersweet thing. They don't deny its fundamental importance:

O happiness! our being's end and aim!
Good, pleasure, ease, content! whate'er thy name:
That something still
which prompts th' eternal sigh,
For which we bear to
live, or dare to die.

Pope, An Essay on Man, IV.1

They understand its intimate relation to unhappiness:

Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Nella miseria.

(Nothing makes us sadder than to remember happy times when we're miserable.)

Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno, v. 121

They wonder about thinking too deeply:

To each his suff'rings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
Th' unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

Gray, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, 10.

They know they are mortal; they must seize it while they can:

Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all!

Wordsworth, The Prelude, XI. 140

The purpose of such high art is... to capture beauty... to capture reality... to make us think? Whatever it is, according to one of the most articulate commentators on the subject, American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), it's on a higher plane, divorced entirely from the humdrum considerations of what makes ordinary people happy or unhappy:

"If artists and poets are unhappy, it is after all because happiness does not interest them. They cannot seriously pursue it because its components are not components of beauty, and being in love with beauty, they neglect and despise those unaesthetic social virtues in the operation of which happiness is found."

Similarly, people who pursue worldly happiness "often miss" the aesthetic component:

"...the happiness of loving beauty is either too sensuous to be stable or else too ultimate, too sacramental, to be accounted happiness by the worldly mind." [26]

Santayana seems to be suggesting there may be too little life in art and too little art in life. But art and the quest for utopia have not always been divorced: in architecture, art is applied liberally in the service of individual and collective human well-being; architecture is to art what technology is to science. Architecture has never merely been about shelter: from Japanese tea gardens to medieval cathedrals and from stately homes to skyscraping office-blocks, the true purpose of architecture has always been optimistic ("pessimistic architecture" is an oxymoron)—to make life or lives better: more spiritually enriched, more contemplative, more comfortable, or just more productive. Arguably the most articulate of the utopians were not writers sketching word-portraits of future-world dream cities but the architects who actually tried to build them. The idea of planning rich urban spaces is certainly not a modern one: urban planning truly began with writers such as Plato and Aristotle and was formalized by the world's first major architectural writer, the Roman engineer Vitruvius. From those early notions to the new-broom, sweeping modernist visions of Albert Speer, Le Corbusier, and Lucio Costa (urban planner of Brasilia, one of the few modernist urban dreams to be realized in concrete), architecture has always concerned itself with utopian visions. And grandiose architecture like this has always failed to deliver [27] for precisely the same reason that utopia always does fails to deliver: individual humans and collective human societies are far too rich, complex, and diverse to be neatly pigeonholed—either by social theories, fictional dreams, philosophical opinions, or concrete towerblocks.

Modern times

In two and a half thousand years, countless philosophers have mused over the meaning of happiness—and reached a variety of different conclusions. Artists and poets have sketched happy moments; musicians and novelists have set out on countless complex journeys from darkness into light. Much has been said, painted, sung, and written about happiness, but there is still no general agreement on what happiness or well-being actually is and what really constitutes a happy life. One reason for this is, as we have already suggested, that happiness is extremely hard to define. There is no one-size-fits-all model of well-being: we all have our own, very different conceptions of what makes our lives worth living.

Even so, you might expect that after two and a half millennia, during which countless people have systematically contemplated human happiness, the subject would be pretty well understood, if not exactly prescribed. As William James, a founding father of modern psychology, wrote in 1902: "How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive for all they do." [28] Yet as James' own pupil George Santayana wisely noted, happiness is not the whole story—nor anything like:

"The sad business of life is rather to escape certain dreadful evils to which our nature exposes us—death, hunger, disease, weariness, isolation, and contempt. By the awful authority of these things, which stand like specters behind every moral injunction, conscience in reality speaks, and a mind which they have duly impressed cannot but feel, by contrast, the hopeless triviality of the search for pleasure." [29]

But it's not the conflict between "the sad business of life" and "the search for pleasure" that frustrates our quest for definite answers about happiness, for people are constantly seeking well-being and meaning in their lives, whether they overtly acknowledge the fact or not. Modern lives trapped in modern times have less "death, hunger, [and] disease" to worry about than their ancestors; as for "weariness, isolation, and contempt", our lives may seem less futile than that of Charlie Chaplin's hapless, cog-in-the-wheel production-line worker (literally, in the 1936 film Modern Times)—but are they any happier? The answer seems to be "no". Over the last four decades, personal income in the United States has more than doubled, yet the number of people describing themselves as "very happy" has bobbed steadily around the miserly 30 percent mark [30]. It seems an astonishing indictment of our economically obsessed age that so few people are truly happy.

If that sounds like a pronouncement from the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope, it may be even less likely to make an impression than a comment from our neighbor on the bus: the wisdom of religious leaders is no longer something that inspires or guides our lives. The demise of formal religion has us scurrying in all directions for crumbs of meaning. In its place, modern lives scrabble through a secular pick-n-mix of self-help books, shopping-mall materialism, and the graven (or, more likely, offset-printed) images of popular culture. Soap operas take the place of sermons, while confidential telephone help lines advertised after the soap credits roll replace the pastoral ear of the priest. We've swapped vestments for football shirts and vespers for "Happy Hour". Yet we have no regrets. Religion—in long-term decline since at least the time of Spinoza—seems, at best, an answer to questions people no longer ask themselves. There is no credible way back to an earlier time of faith and devotion. When Bob Dylan, the archetypal free-wheelin' free-spirit of the 1960s took an astonishing diversion and found himself finding God, fans were perplexed and critics were merciless:

"Bob Dylan has left the side of the free-thinking, socially aware, sometimes cynical humans trying to make ethical choices in a modern world ripped apart by war and hate and prejudice. For him, all is solved in one simple act: accepting God. Where are the deprogrammers when we really need them?" [31]

Most modern philosophers have little time for the ancient hang-ups of organized religion. A.C. Grayling is typically dismissive when it comes to the moral pronouncements of religious leaders, which take their turns in the newspaper pages with stories of religious scandal:

Churchmen are people with avowedly ancient supernatural beliefs who rely on moral casuistry which is 2000 years out of date; it is extraordinary that their views should be given any precedence over those that could be drawn from the richness of thoughtful, educated, open-minded opinion otherwise available to society. [32]

In philosophers cannot agree, if artists and poets talk only in emotional generalities, if we cannot go back to religion—where, then, do we look for the secret of happiness? Most of us do our best to reinvent the wheel of fortune for ourselves. At the end of Woody Allen's film Manhattan, disaffected screenwriter Isaac Davies lies on his sofa undergoing self-analysis by dictaphone on the question of what makes life worth living:

"It has to be optimistic... alright why is life worth living? That's a very good question. Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Like what? Okay... erm... for me? Er... oh... I would say... Groucho Marx... to name one thing... er... Willie Mays and... erm... the second movement of the Jupiter symphony..."

Marx brothers.

Photo: What makes life worth living? The Marx brothers? Picture by courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Such idiosyncratic menus for happiness explain the futility of grand utopian schemes. Even so, if William James is right and happiness is the "secret motive" for all we do, must we really leave human fulfillment to such a high level of chance? We already have the technology of happiness—in the shape of drugs like Prozac that readjust the balance for people who feel depressed. But what we seem to be lacking is a science of happiness—an understanding of what happiness is, what causes is, and how we can reliably achieve it.


1 On display in the Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London.

2. Definitions from Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary.

3. Time Regained, Ch. 2, trans. C. K. Scott Montcrieff, Terence Kilmartin and Andreas Mayor.

4. From Ancilla to The Pre-Socratic Philosophers by Kathleen Freeman, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1948 .

5. Quoted from: Aristippus, article in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Tim O'Keefe.

6. The Republic of Plato, Francis Macdonald Cornford (trans.), Oxford University Press, 1941.

7. Dictionary of quotations.

8. Definitions from Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary.

9. Epictetus, Discourses, Ch4: "Of progress or improvement".

10. Letters IX. Letters from A Stoic. Trans. Robin Campbell, London: Penguin, 1969.

11. Confessions, Book 2, Chapter 1.

12. Dictionary of quotations.

13. Photo by Michael Reeve from Wikipedia.

14. Biography on The International Survivalist Society website, 2004.

15. The Commonplace Book.

16. Dictionary of quotations.

17. Sartre makes the case in Existentialism and Humanism. London: Methuen, 1974.

18. "...let not a day pass without discussing goodness... that's the very best thing a man can do... a life without that sort of examination is not worth living...". The Apology of Socrates, 38A-38D.

19. Utopia by Thomas More.

20. Gulliver's Travels, Part IV: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms. Chapter VII.

21. Quoted in Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women by Christine Fauré, Richard Dubois, Taylor & Francis, 2003, p181.

22. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Petr Kropotkin, 1902.

23. Essay in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Isaiah Berlin, Princeton University Press, 1998.

24. Not that all art is unequivocally content, beautiful, or happy—or anything like. Think of Goya's gore, the all-too-realistic Disasters of War, the howling nightmare visions that redefine "humanity"... or Picasso's Guernica, packed with broken bodies and the snarling teeth of that twisted horse... or even the deeply dark, contemplative misery of Mark Rothko, who took his own life.

25. Letter to his friend Butts, 1802

26. The Sense of Beauty by George Santayana, Scribner's, 1896, pp40-42.

27. See, for example, Robert Hughes' essay "Trouble in Utopia" (or the accompanying TV program) in The Shock of the New. London: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981/2013.

28. Dictionary of quotations.

29. The Sense of Beauty by George Santayana, Scribner's, 1896, pp40-42.

30. Figure 3 in "Happiness" by David G. Miles. Excerpt from Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers, 2004.

31. Michael Goldberg, New Musical Express, November 1979. Quoted in Dylan's Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks. London: HarperCollins, 2003/Penguin, 2004.

32. "Christianity" by A.C. Grayling in The Meaning of Things. London: Weidenfeld, 2001.

33. Aristotle on Ethics by Gerard J. Hughes. London/New York: Routledge, 2001, p181.

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